In the wake of the Iowa caucuses, some on the right that have been cheering on Donald Trump’s campaign weren’t happy, and understandably so. Ted Cruz’s victory and Trump’s slide in the last week from a strong lead to barely edging out Marco Rubio for second place changed the dynamic of the GOP race. Had he won Iowa, Trump might have put a fork in Cruz’s chances to create a conservative lane to the nomination while Rubio’s surprising surge in the last days before the vote made it appear that Republicans had a three-man race rather than a Trump cakewalk. That led some in the entertainment wing of the party to worry that, with Trump holding a big lead in next week’s New Hampshire primary, increased competition between the frontrunner and Cruz would help Rubio in the long run.
They may be right about that and, in the hours after the Iowa results came in, some of those who think Trump is good for the party and the country were calling on the Donald and Cruz to call a truce in their increasingly heated rivalry. That was the conceit of radio talker Laura Ingraham’s piece published yesterday in which she made the case for a “Cruz-Trump coalition” intended to deny the Republican nomination to Rubio or, less plausibly, another member of the so-called moderate quartet facing off in New Hampshire. If such a thing were possible, it might work. Given Trump’s brief and uncharacteristically gracious concession speech congratulating Cruz Monday night, Ingraham hoped that the two could go back to working together as they seemed to do until Cruz’s rise in the polls motivated Trump to launch the same kind of vicious attacks on the Texas senator that had been employed against other Republican candidates.
But Ingraham didn’t count on the Donald being the Donald. After suppressing his inner rage at having been beaten for about 24 hours, Trump broke loose with a bizarre Twitter barrage accusing Cruz of having stolen the caucus from him. Trump’s accusation of fraud are predictably lame, bitter, and lacking in credibility. Since no one is claiming that Cruz’s people actually stole votes or falsified the results, all this amounts to is comical and childish sour grapes, especially since they come from a candidate that has spent the last six months hurling abuse at any and all rivals. Perhaps Trump’s fans will buy into his sense of grievance, but it remains to be seen whether this sort of thing, which reflects the flip side of the confident, brash personality that voters seemed to like, will do him any good. But whether this is one more misstep by Trump in the wake of his foolish debate boycott or not, it’s pretty clear that Cruz won’t be forming any coalition with him.
Nor should he. The hope that the two would join forces reflects two myths that Ingraham and some other talkers have been promoting.
One is the idea that there is some common thread between the Cruz insurgency and the Trump campaign. Since both are, we are told, “anti-establishment” they are natural allies in a battle against moderates. It is true that Trump and Cruz have taken the toughest stands on illegal immigration of the field. If you think that is the one and only issue that defines whether one is a conservative, then you can buy into the notion of a Trump-Cruz alliance as anything but a cynical marriage of convenience. But as was made clear in the last weeks in Iowa, their differences far outweigh any similarities. Love him or hate him (and just about everybody in Washington hates him), Cruz is an ideological conservative dedicated to constitutional principles. His unyielding pursuit of ideology purity and his self-serving tactics have earned him a lot of enemies, but there’s no doubt about where he stands. Trump is the opposite. He is not a conservative and never has been. He is a big government statist dealmaker and the ultimate crony capitalist who promises to make the kind of deals that Cruz has dedicated his career to opposing.
Thus, to conflate the Tea Party/religious conservative movement that Cruz has been trying to build with the populist surge that Trump has ridden to the top of the polls is a complete misnomer. Cruz may have been willing to overlook their differences in an effort to avoid being the object of Trump’s wrath for a while, but there is now no hiding the animosity between them or the stark divide on the issues that sets them apart.
Moreover, the attempt to depict Cruz and Rubio as somehow the polar opposite is also a myth. Despite being damned for his various stands on immigration as a RINO, other conservatives understand that they have far more in common than either senator has with Trump. As Rush Limbaugh noted yesterday, Rubio has always been a “legitimate, full-throated conservative” and not some liberal in GOP clothing. Even Cruz’s old friend from Princeton, National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru, noted back in December that the differences between the two men was more about tactics than anything else. Both are conservatives.
The notion that any of these candidates will, at this late date, be willing to negotiate a mutual non-aggression pact is as laughable as Trump’s bogus claims of fraud in Iowa. The so-called moderates (who are, in fact, not really moderates) in the race also ought to be banding together to see which of them should be the finalist in the race rather than forming a circular firing squad whose only purpose could be to ensure that Cruz or Trump wins. But we know Rubio, Jeb Bush, Christ Christie and John Kasich will continue to have at it until only one of them is left standing, no matter what the cost to the party might be.
But the main conclusion to be drawn from Trump’s tantrum and the gang tackle of Rubio this week illustrates that there are still three paths to the nomination. Trump and Cruz must be acknowledged as the clear choice of two distinct brands of voters — the outsiders and the conservative base. The other lane belongs to whoever emerges from the “moderate” quartet in New Hampshire. It’s impossible to say who will prevail once the final trio is in place. But anyone thinking that such a contest can be avoided by the candidates working together is dreaming.